Building a mentorship program for product managers

As Ad Hoc has grown, our team of product managers has too.

Many of these new teammates have begun their careers at Ad Hoc as associate product managers (APMs). As junior product managers, we expect them to come in with little to no direct product management experience, limited exposure to government technology, and to learn on the job. We also have many experienced product managers who want to grow their product leadership skills – either as people managers or individual contributors – and who have a lot of government technology expertise to offer. To connect these two groups, we’ve created a supplemental APM mentorship program that provides a place for aspiring product managers to grow and experienced PMs to teach.

What is the APM mentorship program?

We created the APM mentorship program to help the influx of product talent at Ad Hoc succeed in their product careers and civic technology. In this program, we address realities for both junior and experienced product managers. This means providing opportunities for Ad Hoc APMs to receive coaching on product management and the nuances of digital government services, while giving mid- and senior-level product managers an opportunity to practice mentorship and coaching outside of and without the pressure of formal people management.

Ad Hoc’s APM mentorship program creates a supportive learning and growth environment for our APMs. Understanding product management – particularly product management in the government space – can take time. Our APM mentorship program provides increased opportunities to learn from experienced peers and build supportive relationships that accelerate their skill building and practice. The program ultimately gives them more preparation and confidence to become future product leaders themselves.

The program matches APMs with experienced product managers who have volunteered as mentors. Once matched, the mentor-APM pair can structure their meeting time however is most useful to them. APMs are encouraged to initiate and manage the meetings and conversations themselves.

Sometimes, mentor-APM pairs may not know how to start building rapport with each other or which conversation topics may be of interest. So we developed a toolkit as an optional resource that mentors and APMs can use to facilitate conversation topics from government contracting to product frameworks to work-life balance. That way, pairs have a range of relevant topics to choose from and discuss.

Why is the APM mentorship program helpful?

Too often, product managers can find themselves heads down delivering a product, disconnected from other products and product managers. We want to make it easy for our product managers to prioritize their professional development and to mature the knowledge and skills that make them successful in product strategy, consulting, and delivery work.

The APM mentorship program is Ad Hoc’s incubator that helps new product managers thrive. We provide a safe learning environment for APMs to navigate and accelerate growth in their new careers by giving them an experienced mentor. These mentors are additional support outside of the APM’s formal managers – typically product managers outside of the APM’s direct team – which gives APMs exposure to various product career paths, different products, and government agencies. We also match APMs with mentors who are not their formal practice manager so that they can have conversations and ask questions in the safety of an informal mentorship environment.

Being able to connect with someone in a completely different business unit has been key. It feels like that business distance allows for more genuine and less guarded conversations.

—Feedback from an APM

Mentors also get to build their skills and practice mentorship before committing to people management or choosing to remain in the individual contributor career path. The program helps both mentors and APMs navigate their career ladder, while connecting and building lasting relationships between product managers of all levels.

What have we learned?

Mentorship and community are pivotal contributors to the continued growth and success of our product managers. When we piloted the program at the end of 2020 (shout out to Ayush Chakravarty for leading this effort with me!), we received positive reviews that encouraged us to formalize the program as a core component of our Ad Hoc Product Practice in 2021.

In 2021, the APM mentorship program was instrumental in supporting product management career advancement. A third of the 2021 APM cohort were promoted to product managers as the product practice at Ad Hoc grew by 29%. At the end of the year, we sent a feedback survey to participants of the APM mentorship program – which had about a 70% participation rate – and learned that most of the APMs who were promoted credited the mentorship program as contributing to their promotion.

My mentor has been very helpful to my growth at Ad Hoc and they have been a great sounding board for challenges I'm facing in my day to day work.

—Feedback from an APM

As we look at the broader program feedback, 100% of both mentors and APM respondents recommended the program to other product managers.

Where do we go from here?

We’re committed to investing in our product managers’ growth and development, and the mentorship program will continue to be a key piece of that investment as Ad Hoc’s product practice grows. Our goal is to develop more robust ways of supporting APMs and their mentors alike, while continuing to match 100% of APMs with mentors and to support their advancement into experienced product leaders.

What started as a test program is now operating as a formalized program with dedicated funding, run by a product practice committee who manages the program. In the pilot stage, we hand matched mentors and APMs based on their responses from qualitative survey results. We’ve since developed an intake form matching tool, and we’re exploring more automated ways of matching.

We also learned from our survey feedback that it’s unclear how an APM can become a mentor once they’re promoted. So we’re taking a look at the “customer journey” of APMs and mentors to help identify other pain points in their mentorship journey. As a result, we’re iterating on a guide for how APMs can “graduate” from the mentorship program to ensure that APMs have a clear path to come full circle and become mentors themselves.

If you’re new to product management and are looking for a built-in opportunity to learn from experienced product mentors, we encourage you to check out our job board and apply to one of our associate product manager positions at Ad Hoc.